Magazine May 4, 2009, Issue

Why Constitutions Matter

Examining the legal root of the financial crisis

The current financial meltdown has exposed the myth that our nation’s sophisticated, multilayered scheme of government regulation immunizes us from systemic failure. We are realizing that shocks, from both home and abroad, will exact their toll. What is less commonly appreciated is that the very political institutions on which we depend count as a structural cause of much of our current distress. In many cases, the root of our problems lies in the legal restrictions that block the movement of prices and wages in financial markets. It is just this sort of folly that has embroiled the Obama administration in testy disputes with bankers who are desperate to return their TARP money. These banks cannot afford to bleed talent to foreign and start-up companies that operate (for the moment at least) free of Obama’s egalitarian compensation-control shackles.

That said, at least some portion of the current malaise comes from a more prosaic source: We don’t honor the straightforward moral imperative that promises must be kept. Our modern crisis has been brewing since the Supreme Court started inexorably casting aside protection for property and contract in an effort to cope with economic tumults from Roosevelt’s 1930s through Reagan’s 1980s. On this score, our flawed constitutional framework suffers from two related mistakes, both of which are endorsed by acclamation today. The first is the notion that the government may be permitted to disrupt financial transactions between private parties in ways that frustrate the unambiguous expectations of the parties. The second is the idea that the government need not honor its own promises in dealing with private individuals.

These two propositions are stated at a level of abstraction that is likely to draw yawns of indifference from anxious policy wonks who fixate on the latest twists in the fortunes of AIG or Citibank. But these dramatic financial struggles play out against a background of weak contract and property rights — a system that drives political operatives into high gear in times of economic stress.

The legal stability of private agreements offers one powerful bulwark against these mischievous government activities. Once people know that courts will enforce their agreements as made, they have no incentive to beg for government favors to improve their contractual positions. One avenue of political intrigue is closed down. The stabilization of contractual arrangements will not of itself stop all political hijinks, but it will go a long way toward incentivizing firms to focus on creating wealth, or on renegotiating their existing agreements that have turned bad. These business workouts are not sterile. They increase the total wealth of the parties, and they create additional business opportunities for strangers to the basic deal. As the circle of contracts expands, so does the economy. One good idea, applied numerous times, generates tremendous benefits.

The same logic applies to deals between government entities and ordinary citizens. The principle of rational expectations still holds. Any government can euchre its citizens once. But if everyone knows it can renege on its commitments at will, it can’t pull the same stunt twice. People will steer clear of doing further business with government, which then loses one key tool — voluntary agreement — that it desperately needs to address today’s plethora of economic ills. Everyone stands back, leaving coercion, not cooperation, as the dominant form of government action.

In the modern era, state interference with private contracts began, most tellingly, with mortgage foreclosures during the Great Depression. In Home Building & Loan Association v. Blaisdell (1934), the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether Minnesota law could delay a bank’s foreclosure of real estate subject to unpaid mortgages. The answer was Solomonic, but wrong: Minnesota could not kill the lender’s right, but it could alter the lender’s remedy; the change had to be reasonable, but what was reasonable was to be decided by the state on a case-by-case basis, with the legislature acting “primarily” as the judge.

Demographically, we should expect the debtor interests to have prevailed in those early legislative tussles. It is a brute fact that a smallish number of banks made loans to a large number of local businesses and residents. When large groups of debtors exerted pressure, state legislatures responded with mortgage moratoria. Postponing debt collection in turn put pressure on banks as borrowers from their own depositors, which eventually led to a nationwide collapse of the banking system. The world would have been a very different place if the state had been forced to pay from public funds to forestall mortgage foreclosure — a prospect that would have generated far less political support. Then the cost of its forgiveness would have fallen on the public balance sheet, and voters would in all likelihood have decided the price was too steep.

#page#I am no fan of this system of public relief, because it lets some citizens impose obligations on others; but its shortcomings are small compared with those of a system of state-mandated loan forgiveness. The latter is a form of “off-balance-sheet financing” that lies under the social radar, since it is so hard to monetize these contract modifications in ways that make clear their costs. Worse, these modifications ignore the impact of the delay in payment on the bank’s position. Then, as now, banks often accepted demand deposits or short-term notes. Once the mortgage payments are postponed, bank failures become more likely as antsy depositors clamor to withdraw funds in a flight to safety. The short-term fix for borrowers opens up a gaping hole for the lending banks, who themselves have borrowed. The Depression bank failures and the Roosevelt bank holidays were the inexorable consequence of this credit squeeze.

Today, the power over mortgages has passed from the states to the federal government — but the old habit still exerts a powerful influence. The Obama administration is keen on postponing the collection of loans, by ordering workouts that block foreclosure and extend the life of the mortgage. The rules influence not only those who are already in default, but those who are behind in their payments or who may choose to default. The shakiness of home mortgages spread rapidly throughout the system as the initial loans were sliced and diced. As repackaged, these loans worked their way through the system, so that other financial institutions came under stress, including our two government bankers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The numbers are impressive. Over 2.3 million homes went into foreclosure in 2008, and the first two months of this year racked up over 500,000 additional ones. Most critically, the current dislocations don’t come solely from the properties in foreclosure. They also come from the perceived increased riskiness of homes not in foreclosure. This forces a downward revaluation of all the securitized packages now on the market, which in turn imposes enormous pressure on banks and other entities to liquidate their holdings to meet their various regulatory and contract requirements.

We can’t, moreover, dig our way out of this hole by following the 1930s policy of repayment delay. The securitized packages have to take those losses into account today. And their valuations will reflect the grisly fact that today’s distressed borrower is likely to fail tomorrow, when the property is worth even less. Remember: Many defaults come from borrowers who paid little or nothing down on their mortgages, and who did little to build up their equity in the property before defaulting. To act as though these recent buyers were landowners with an indissoluble bond with the soil is to glorify their status without warrant.

In contrast, many debtors back in the Depression had made large down payments, only to be savaged financially by the steep deflation that forced them to default when they were unable to repay their debts with more expensive dollars than they had borrowed. Fortunately, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke has not repeated the mistake of the 1930s, when government tolerated a massive contraction of the money supply that deflated the currency, implicitly increasing the real amounts of all debts, and thus driving borrowers into unnecessarily deep holes that only a reinflation of the currency could have cured. 

Today’s constant efforts to rig mortgage markets frequently have a different unpleasant consequence: They tax prudent borrowers in the hopeless quest to stave off financial ruin for the imprudent, who are likely to default a second time down the road, when the underlying real estate is worth even less. It is better to get the process over with quickly and have the original owner return to the rental market, while letting new buyers purchase the property out of foreclosure at low prices, with clean title and little fanfare. This trend is starting, and we need to do everything we can to accelerate it. Unfortunately, the current willingness to meddle with mortgages blocks that cleansing process in a second way. There is a huge glut of houses on the market that were placed there by people who want to sell before they go underwater. We thus face this genuine paradox: Lenders are eager to lend, and there seems to be an ample amount of cash at low rates; there are often competent buyers waiting for these houses; yet the buyers simply cannot arrange financing.

#page#Why do we have, simultaneously, falling prices and a small number of sales? Much of the price fall can be explained as a contraction of the bubble; the market has yet to reach a new equilibrium. And doubtless much of the hesitation is in response to the current uneasy economic climate, which is in part attributable to the risks of higher taxes and new regulatory schemes. That said, one part of the mix is the continued uneasiness over the risks of further interference in mortgage markets down the road. Investors and banks know that the government has disrupted private transactions to the detriment of creditors once, and fear that it will do so again.

Of course, Congress could swear on a stack of seven Bibles that it would never behave as it did the last time around. But who will believe them now that the state’s power is construed so broadly as to allow the government to reshape lending markets in whatever fashion it sees fit? The situation infects not only the residential-home market, but larger transactions to build office complexes and apartment houses. The fancy footwork of debtor relief may help some borrowers, but it won’t encourage wary lenders to return to the market if they lack confidence in our current institutional arrangements. David Hume always stressed the “security of possession” in dealing with property arrangements. Our cavalier attitude toward private transactions has already done enough mischief to prove that he was right.

A parallel story explains the decline in confidence in contracts that government makes with private individuals. Of all contracting parties, government has the obligations that should be the most secure — because states do not have financial constraints that block them from discharging their contracts. But the history of government obligations tells a different story. Governments claim, and get, special privileges, which led Justice Holmes to say, only half critically, that people have to learn to turn “square corners” in dealing with the government.

Here is one example of the risks. In Connolly v. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (1986), the PBGC was a wholly owned government corporation charged with administering a multiemployer pension plan to which individual companies had contributed. These deals contained explicit government assurances that the participants could withdraw from these plans without prejudice at any time. The right to withdraw was the means to prevent government mismanagement. But mismanagement there was, so, as the fund’s position became more precarious, member companies started to withdraw. Congress promptly switched gears with a new statute that imposed on these firms new liabilities — all to preserve the validity of the original scheme.

A unanimous Supreme Court blessed the retroactive modification of the original plan on two dubious grounds. First, it asserted, mere contract rights should not be treated as a form of property. Unfortunately, most complex financial assets are in the form of contract claims against a bewildering array of counterparties. Stripping them of all constitutional protections lets political forces destroy them at will. Don’t believe me; read the Court’s emphatic words: “Our cases are clear that legislation readjusting rights and burdens is not unlawful solely because it upsets otherwise settled expectations. . . . This is true even though the effect of legislation is to impose a new duty or liability based on past acts.” And, equally ominously: “A public program that adjusts the benefits and burdens of economic life to promote the common good . . . does not constitute a taking requiring Government compensation.” Alas, confiscation is the ideal way to shift around benefits and burdens. So much for Hume’s settled expectations.

Second, the Court declared itself unfazed even if contract claims did count as property: After all, the contributors had “sufficient notice” that pension plans were regulated, and thus took the risk of financial losses by government alteration of financial terms. Hey, by this logic I needn’t pay taxes so long as I give the government sufficient notice of my intentions. The truth is, notice itself is a neutral concept. In some contexts, it should bar constitutional claims; in others, not. A sound system for recording deeds informs the world who owns what property. It therefore facilitates trade to make everyone consult the index before buying or lending. But “notice” as it used in the Connolly case is just an effort to bully individuals into ceding to the government a dominant position. Its unilateral imposition on others crimps the liberties of ordinary people just as the tax evader does — or, indeed, the common criminal, who blithely announces that anyone who walks the public street at night is fair game.

#page#We don’t need specific notice to discover that desperate government officials will use various measures to expand their sphere of social control. That’s a social given. It is therefore the height of folly to adopt any rule that holds that individuals lose their contract or property rights if they have notice of future government misbehavior. To adopt that position is to allow the government to use its own misconduct to shore up its defenses against constitutional attacks. The incentives for bad conduct are just irresistible.

Here’s the most conspicuous example of government’s tendency to interfere in a harmful manner — one ripped straight from the headlines. President Obama announced his outrage over the “shameful” compensation package totaling around $165 million for AIG’s executives, given the $200 billion or so that the government has pumped into the company. Let’s bracket the question whether any bailout makes sense at all. (It probably doesn’t.) Either way, someone has to run the ship. The current generation of AIG executives replaced those who engineered AIG’s bad credit-default swaps before 2005, and they were given repeated assurances that their retention packages — which are not inflammatory “bonuses” — would be paid in full. There is no way for anyone to recoup today any payments made to the people who set the fire. But it hardly helps the situation when we compound earlier errors by mounting an indiscriminate attack on the current executives, folks who are charged with putting out the fire.

At one time it looked as though this attack would crystallize in legislation. After all, the House has already passed a bill to levy a special tax on the misnamed “bonuses” to employees of any financial company that has received more than $5 billion in TARP funds, when the employee and spouse have a combined adjusted income of more than $250,000.

Now the bill is stalled, but for the worst of reasons: These executives have been bludgeoned into surrendering their payments. It is not a pretty picture. Republican senator Charles Grassley urged the offending AIG employees to either “resign or go commit suicide.” Sweet. Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal and New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo threatened to disclose the names of AIG employees who did not return their bonuses. AIG itself, under government pressure, demanded on Friday, March 20, that the key employees return all or part of their bonuses by the close of business on Monday, March 23. Many caved. Some are now suing.

These stunts cannot encourage able people to work for businesses that are under the government yoke. Yet for all the tumult, no one bothered to ask whether these new employees had done any good. For the record, they have reduced AIG’s exposure for credit-default swaps from $2.7 trillion to $1.6 trillion. It is madness to let political pressures jeopardize the $200 billion cash infusion to make political hay over retention payments less than one-tenth of 1 percent of that amount.

Grotesque as it sounds, if Congress did pass the AIG tax, the precedents are so bad that our courts might well sustain it. In this depleted constitutional environment, therefore, the “smart money” will take to the sidelines while the “dumb money” — e.g., people like me — will take a market drubbing. Liberal economists like Paul Krugman posit Keynesian “liquidity traps.” True in the 1930s, but wholly inappropriate today in a world awash in money but short on confidence. No, the current malaise arises because the smart money doesn’t want to have the rug pulled out from under it. So it invests only in rich deals to offset the political risks, and thereby inspires indignant denunciation of greedy capitalists. The want of credible government commitments spurs a mad rush into Treasury bills, while large projects languish and mortgage markets remain sluggish even as banks dangle low-interest mortgages. The loss of confidence stems from many sources, including the present political risks. Normally, those risks are small, but they multiply when President Obama vies with congressional leaders in outraged indignation, thereby burning billions in social capital. We have liquidity. We need to restore the confidence that is being shredded day by day.

Recent events show how our dilapidated legal framework is one remote cause of our current financial disarray. In and of themselves, bad constitutional rules don’t obligate political actors to behave imprudently. But when they are tempted to do so, no sensible constitutional institutions are there to hold them in check. James Madison observed in Federalist 10 that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” Unfortunately, he didn’t tell us what to do when all three branches are unenlightened. Unless we repair our tattered constitutional heritage, we’re in for a long period of strident rhetoric and economic stagnation.

– Mr. Epstein is a professor of law and director of the law-and-economics program at the University of Chicago. He is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a visiting professor at NYU Law School, and the author most recently of The Case Against the Employee Free Choice Act (Hoover Press).


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